Collision Alarm

Holy dreck this fuigetry.

After letting Captain Deladier know what’s up with the giant asteroid looming spinning ever closer, Barcalow’s attention is grabbed by a screen immediately before him. It’s the collision alarm.

Prepare your eyes.


This is the interface equivalent of running around screaming in an Ed Wynn voice while flailing your arms over your head. Sure, it’s clear something’s wrong, but other than that, it’s not helping.

Sure, there’s the buzzing and the giant yellow, all-caps text that blinks COLLISION ALARM. There’s a pea green bar that seems to be indicating steadily decreasing distance or time or something that is running out. Those two are helpful. The rest of this information is a pile of nonsense.

  • Blinking? If the pilot has seconds to act, isn’t there a risk that when he glances at the screen for a split second, that he’ll miss something?
  • What’s with the blue waves rippling out from the representation of the ship? If it’s a collision, wouldn’t you expect something to be represented as coming toward the ship, and maybe a line describing its path, and a point illustrating point of impact?
  • Why do all of the NV need to be labeled as such? Why do they need to blink randomly? How is that useful information?
  • How do those numbers link to those labels? Isn’t that asking the navigator to do a lot of visual work in a crisis?
  • What does it mean for the ESTIMATED MASS to be changing to zero and suddenly jump again? Because that would better fit a Cthulu alarm, as the physics of the Old World no longer applied. Stell’bsna n’ghft. Y’hah.
  • What does it mean for the APPROXIMATE SPEED to start so low, rise to nearly 1000, and fall again? What outside force is acting on this mass? (Or is it a function of the mass changing? Anyone care to do the speculative math?)
  • The DISTANCE TO OBJECT does in fact decrease like you might expect it to at the beginning. But then it drops to zero. Shouldn’t they be dieing instead? Oh, but then it jumps again.
  • Why is time contained in a single number? Does the Federation use some Metric version of time?
  • How can OBJECT TRAJECTORY be a single digit? It’s a multivariate concept.
  • Why are there no units? As in, anywhere?
  • How could OBJECT BEARING change to zero and then jump back up again just like ESTIMATED
  • …wait…
  • …Are you kidding me?

And that’s when I went, frame by frame, and captured the data points. Here they are, visualized as a graph over time. Notice anything?


OK, let me just line those up for you.


I know sci-fi interfaces are often made under time pressure, but it really lets me down when they just copy and paste numbers. Like we won’t, many years later, analyze it frame-by-frame for a blog. Sheesh.

Urgency requires focus

Of course this is a narrative interface, meant to communicate to an audience in about a second that things are very very bad for the Rodger Young. Of course it’s rooted in a mechanical metaphor where dumb, fixed sensors with thresholds would go all calamity when things went pear-shaped.

We don’t live in that world anymore. Urgency requires focus, and when circumstances are dire, yes, the pilot needs to know the direness of the problem, but then they also need to focus on fixing that problem. Urgency interfaces should…

  1. Get attention, and once they have it ease up on the attention getting, since it becomes a distraction.
  2. Illustrate the problem, including time-until-anticipated.
  3. Illustrate what the computer is doing about it (if it’s agentive, which the Rodger Young is clearly not.)
  4. Illustrate the best options available and provide a means to enact those.

Note that the COLLISION ALERT does two and a half of those. It gets Barcalow’s attention, shows the problem with a label, and a green bar shows time remaining. That’s maybe a tenth of the screen. Then it tries its very, very best to distract the user from that useful information with blinking, semi-random nonsense. Was this thing designed by the bugs?

Red Phone

After the gravitic distortion is discovered, Barcalow flips a toggle switch upwards with his thumb. As Ibanez confirms that “Gravity is 225 and rising,” the light on the bridge turns red, and Barcalow turns to a monitor.

The monitor (seen above) features a video window in the top center. Along the left side of the screen 11 random numbers report the COMM STATS INTERSHIP. Along the right side of the screen 11 other random numbers report the COMM STATS INTRASHIP. Beneath the video some purple bars slide in and out from a central column of red rectangles. One of these rectangles is bright yellow. Beneath that a section reports SCANNING FREQUENCIES as 21 three-character strings, some of which are highlighted as red. At the bottom of the screen blue and yellow-green smears race back and forth across a rectangle. Everything is in Starship Troopers‘ signature saturated colors and a block font like Microgramma or Eurostile.

These details are almost immediately obscured, as Deladier looks up from her laptop (looking presciently like a modern Macbook Air with its aluminum casing) to look at the video monitor to demand a “Report,” and the video grows larger to fill the screen.

StarshipTroopers-RedPhone 04

StarshipTroopers-RedPhone 07

Here the snarky description must pause for some analysis.


The red alert mechanism is actually pretty good. Both the placement of its switch at shoulder level and the fact that it must be flipped up help prevent against accidental activation. The fact that it’s a toggle switch means it can be undone with ease if necessary. The red light immediately provides feedback to everyone on the bridge (and throughout the ship?) that the system has gone into a red alert. No other action is necessary to alert the person who needs to be informed, i.e. the Captain. The only other improvement might be a klaxon warning to alert others who are sleeping, but it’s entirely possible that very thing is happening elsewhere on the ship, and the bridge is spared that distraction. So full marks.

The user interface on the monitor seems pretty crappy though. If someone is meant to monitor COMM STATS—intership or intraship—I cannot imagine how a column of undifferentiated numbers helps. A waveform would be more useful to track activity across a spectrum. Something. Anything other than a stack of numbers that are hard to read and interpret.

The SCANNING FREQUENCIES is similarly useless. Sure, it’s clear that the ship’s systems are scanning those frequencies, but the three-character strings require crew to memorize what those mean. If those frequencies are defined—as you imagine they must be to be at all useful as static variables—then you can remove the cognitive weight of having to memorize the differences between JL5 and LQ7 by giving them actual names, and only displaying the ones that have activity on them, and what that activity means. Does someone need to listen in? Shouldn’t that task be apparent? And why would that need to be shown generally to the bridge, rather than to a communications officer? And I’m not sure what those purple squiggles mean. It’s nice that they’re animated I guess, but if they’re meant to help the user monitor some variable, they’re too limited. Like the sickbay display on the original Star Trek, knowing the current state is likely not as useful as knowing how the information is trending over time. (See page 261 for more details on this.) So trendlines would be better here. The little sweeping candy colored smears are actually okay, though, presuming that it’s showing that the system is successfully sweeping all frequencies for additional signal. Perhaps a bit distracting, but easy to habituate.

It’s nice that the video screen fills the screen to match the needs of the communicators. But as with so many other sci-fi video calls, no effort is made to explain where the camera is on this thing. Somehow they can just look at the eyes of the other person on the monitor, and it works. This feels natural to the actors, looks natural to the audience, and would be natural in real life, but until we can figure out how to embed a camera within a screen, this can’t work this way, and we’re stuck with the gaze monitoring problem raised in the Volumetric Projection chapter of the book with the Darth Vader example.

So, all in all, this interface is mostly terrible until it becomes just a videophone. And even then there are questions.

Snarky description continues

Picking up the description where I left off, after the Captain demands a report, Barcalow tells her quickly “Captain, we’re in the path of an unidentified object heading toward us at high speed.” Ibanez then looks down at her monitor at the gravity well animation, to remark that the “Profile suggests an asteroid, ma’am.” You know, just before looking out the window.


Honestly, that’s one of the funniest two-second sequences in the whole movie.

Gravitic distortion

As Ibanez and Barcalow are juuuuuust about to start a slurpy on-duty make out session, their attention is drawn by the coffee mug whose content is listing in the glass.


Ibanez explains helpfully, “There’s a gravity field out there.” Barcalow orders her to “Run a scan!” She turns to a screen and does something to run the scan, and Barcalow confirms that “Sensors [are] on” As she watches an amber-colored graticule distort as if weighed down by an increasingly heavy ball while a Big Purple Text Label blinks GRAVITIC DISTORTION. Two numbers increment speedily at the bottom-right edge of the screen and modulus at 1000. “There,” she says.


So many plot questions

  • What kind of coffee cups can withstand enough gravity to tip the contents 45 degrees but remain themselves perfectly still and upright?
  • Why did they need the coffee cup? Wouldn’t their inner ear have told them the same thing faster?
  • Why is the screen in the background of the coffee cup still blinking OPTIMAL COURSE?

Of course we have to put these aside in favor of the interaction design questions.

First the “workflow”

Why on earth would they need to turn on sensors? Aren’t the sensors only useful when they’re sensing? If you have a sense that something is wrong, turning on the sensors only confirms what you already know. This is still more of that pesky stoic guru metaphor. This should have been an active academy that warned them—loudly—the moment nearby gravity started looking weird.

The visualization is not bad…

Let’s pause the criticism for one moment to give credit where credit is due. The grid vortex is a fast and reliable way to illustrate the invisible problem that they’re facing and telegraph increasing danger. Warped graticules have been a staple of depicting spacetime curvature since Disney’s 1979 movie The Black Hole.

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

This is also the same technique that scientists use to depict the same phenomenon, so it’s got some street cred, too.


The same thing can be shown in 3D, but it’s visually noisier. Moreover, the 2D version builds on our sense of basic physics, as we can easily imagine what would happen to anything nearing the depression. So, it’s mostly the right display.

…But then, the interaction

Despite the immediacy of the display, there’s a major problem. Sure, this interface conveys impending doom, but it doesn’t convey any useful information to help them know where the threat is coming from or what to do about it after they know that doom impends. (Plus, they had to turn it on, and all it tells them is, “Yep, looks pretty bad out there.”) To design this right, they need a sense of the 3D vector of the threat as compared to their own vector, and what the best available options are.

Better: Augmented reality to telegraph the invisible threat

Fortunately, we already have the medium and channel for Ibanez and Barcalow to immediately understand the 3D direction of the threat in the real world and most importantly, in relation to the ship’s trajectory and orientation, since that’s the tool they have on hand to avoid the threat. We’ve already seen that volumetric projection is a thing in this world, so the ship should display the VP just outside the ship’s viewports. The animation can illustrate the threat coming from the outside on the outside, and fade once the threat gets to be in a range of visible light. In this way there’s no 2D to 3D interpretation. It’s direct. Where’s the unexpected gravitic distortion? Look out the window. There. There is the the unexpected gravitic distortion. The HUD display would need to be aimed at the navigator’s seat, but for very distant objects, e.g. out of visible light range, the parallax shift wouldn’t be problematic for other locations on the bridge. You’d also have to manage the scenario where the threat comes from a direction not out the window (like, say, through the floor) but you can just shift the VP interior for that.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Next, you could use VP inside the ship to show the two paths and point of collision, as well as best predicted paths (there’s that useful active academy metaphor again.) Then we can let Ibanez trust her own instincts as she presses the manual override to steer the ship clear. I don’t have the time to comp an internal VP up right now, so I’ll rely on your imagination to comp this particular part of a much better solution than what we see on screen.

Course Optimal (for IXD)

In the prior post, I spoke about how the COURSE OPTIMAL betrays the writer of Starship Trooper’s mental model of technology as a “stoic guru” and implored writers to shift that model to one of an “active academy.” It’s a good post (if I do say so myself). Check it out if you haven’t yet.


But this blog is ostensibly for interaction design (also a thinly veiled rèsumè for my wealthtastic and fameulous future career consulting for sci-fi movies). What do the stoic guru and active academy metaphors do for us?

Is it only for strategists?

To change a writer’s metaphor is to encourage them to conceive of technology differently at a strategic level. That is, what strategic role does the technology play in its users’ lives? If you as an interaction designer have the luxury of consulting on projects at a strategic level, then this metaphor is as powerful for you as it is for the writer. Are you writing scenarios where your personas query technology? Or is the technology getting to know its user and then doing work for them? (Don’t worry, there’s plenty for interaction designers to still do.)


In-house designers—are often inheriting projects where the strategy was done by someone else, a fait accompli. What if you weren’t asked about the strategic implications of the design task at hand (but you’re still thinking of them?) Here I must encourage some upstartness, some whippersnappery piss n’ vinegar. I used to work with a smaller interaction design consultancy in my day job, and even then we never let a design brief get in the way of a great idea. That is, we will solve the problem as the client frames it first, and then deliver a But Wait, There’s More second idea for consideration if not for this project, then for a later project. Even if it can’t be acted on in the moment, it can plant a seed that germinates later.


So don’t fret if it’s not your job. Make it part of your job to send these ideas up the chain, and more than likely it will eventually become your job. Sure, design the thing, but then design thing you want to design.